“You see that?”
“What?” I ask.
This prompts my hiking buddy Johnny Hunter to point, and my eyes are drawn to some far off spot up a slope on the cedar-covered mountain in front of us.
He then comes over, points again and draws my eyes toward the small herd of buffalo, those oh-so-hard-to-see brown lumps of fur and muscle not 100 feet in front of me.
I’m not sure why, but I have an inability (aversion?) to seeing buffalo, no matter how close they are.
We’re hiking in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma, with the plan being to clamber up to the top of Sunset Peak, one of the larger mountains on the west edge of this venerable range. At 2,180 feet, it is not anywhere near the tallest in the Wichitas, but it stands by itself – a long, north-to-south massif with three peaks. We were targeting its stately southern summit.
Many people come to the Wichitas for its wildlife viewing. With so much of the countryside around already consumed by farms, ranches and a large military base, habitat for the natural denizens of the Southern Plains is scarce. But in this small refuge, these creatures thrive.
I just wish I could spot them a little quicker. It’s safe to say that I have a bumpy history with buffalo (a story for another time). Just the same, seeing them in such great numbers and up close is heartening and rewarding.
The problem, though, is this particular herd is directly in our path to Sunset’s southern slopes.
Buffalo are normally pretty easygoing creatures. But like any wildlife, they can get spooked, angry, territorial and hostile. I’ve been charged by a buffalo before, and it’s not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.
The herd is aware we’re here. They don’t seem to concerned, which is a good sign. We make sure to give them plenty of time to know we are here, that we’re not up to anything, and then pick a route around them. Eventually, we pass by (within about 50 feet or so) and then dip into a gentle ravine at the base of Sunset.
Johnny’s shoulder is bugging him, and we’re not equipped for any radical ascents anyway. So we’re looking for hiking and scrambling routes to the top that don’t involve so much upper body work. Sunset’s summit can be reached through difficult hiking and a little bit of scrambling, but like many of its kin in the Wichitas, it has plenty of other routes that can reach a high degree of difficulty. Its western slopes include a trad rock climbing route that is rated 5.11.
We choose a switchback-style route (there are no real trails here) that passes under a couple of sets of ledges and boulder outcrops. The little nooks, crannies and cedar trees make for some pretty good places for other creatures to hide. It’s too cool to be worried much about rattlesnakes, but there are other things we need to watch for. In one craggy area, we hear something growling, but we can’t find the source of the noise. That’s probably for the best.
Closer to the top, we pick a couple of lines. I spot a pretty solid but steep gully that will give me a brief stretch of scrambling while Johnny takes a longer way around. Generally speaking, the rock here is solid, knobby granite with plenty of good handholds and footholds.
In short order, we reach the top.
The weather is perfect. It’s late February, unseasonably warm and the skies are blue. After a quick lunch, I fall asleep for about 15 minutes with the warmth of the sun bathing my face. Above us, a huge flock of migratory birds is circling overhead, calling out quite loudly, and spiraling up to catch air currents that will propel them north. I’m not sure what they are, but I think they’re some sort of large crane. It’s amazing how much noise their calls make while being so far above us.
Sunset has other treats in store. The views from the top look out toward old friends like Elk Mountain, Mount Mitchell and Crab Eyes. There is also a host of other minor peaks that look like really interesting climbs, though much tougher than what we did that day.
Scanning back to where we had just come, we realize that the buffalo herd hasn’t gone anywhere. So we’ll be seeing these beasts again on our way out.
At least this time I’ll know right where they are.
ABOUT THE ROUTE
From the Elk Mountain trailhead, go south, then west across the creekbed. You’ll be following a prospector trail toward Crab Eyes. Before turning south to Crab Eyes, the trail will turn back west again along another creekbed. From here, the trail is intermittent, so there will be some light bushwhacking. As you approach Sunset, turn back north and ascend a short ridge, then back down to the foot of the peak’s south summit.
From here, follow a switchbacking path that eventually goes under some rock ledges. This will take you just under the peak’s summit. Then pick a line of up one of the gullies and scramble to the top.
Total route length is about seven miles. Route classification (from 1-5) is a 2+, with some Class 3 scrambling if you want it.
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